Saturday, September 2, 2006

Cup of HOPE
Hockey legend Ajit Pal Singh, who led India to its solitary World Cup triumph in 1975, recalls the historic victory and looks at Indiaís prospects in the tournament beginning in Monchengladbach, Germany, on September 6

The memory of our World Cup triumph is so fresh in my mind that it seems as if it happened recently. Though over 31 years have elapsed since that epochal feat on March 15, 1975, at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, people till today fondly recall that victory as a shining achievement of Indian hockey.

Over 50,000 spectators had thronged the stadium, raising the decibel level to a crescendo, as India came from behind to upstage Pakistan 2-1 in the title clash of the third edition of the World Cup. (India had finished third, behind Pakistan and hosts Spain, in the inaugural World Cup at Barcelona in 1971 and were second, behind hosts Holland, in the second edition at Amstelveen in 1973).

Logical run

In hindsight, it was a logical progression for India to mount the victory podium in Kuala Lumpur after finishing third and second, respectively, in the first two editions. I had the privilege of captaining India in the first and third editions, while MP Ganesh led the side at Amstelveen`85 I cherish those memories till this day.

An electrifying stage was set for the final showdown after we had enacted a come-from-behind act to oust hosts Malaysia in the semi-final. The thrill of playing in front of a full house at the Merdeka Stadium was amazing as there were as many spectators rooting for India as there were for Malaysia and Pakistan. Such a charged-up atmosphere made our semifinal and final matches unforgettable.

But the noise level was so high that we had a hard time even listening to the whistle of the umpires. But then, as they say, allís well that ends well.

Perfect teamwork

Our success in Kuala Lumpur was the result of perfect teamwork and planning. We played as a well-oiled machine throughout the tournament. Even when the chips were down, we surmounted the obstacles and captured the Cup.

In the semifinal against Malaysia, before we could settle down, we found ourselves trailing 1-2. We did some quick thinking and noticed that Surjit Singh was executing his penalty-corner shots on the left side of the Malaysian goalie, who anticipated well to stop them. Replacing Michael Kindo, we brought in Aslam Sher Khan, as he could hit the shots on either side of the custodian.

As we had envisaged, Aslam shot one past the right side of the goalie to get the equaliser after Surjit Singh had reduced the margin. Then Harcharan Singh came up with the match-winner.

Tackling Pak

But beating Malaysia was just half the battle won. We had to now tackle the bigger rival, Pakistan, in the final to realise our dream. We knew that this was our chance to win the Cup and we should not squander it.

But all our planning and determination went for a toss when we actually locked sticks with Pakistan on the grass turf.

Pakistan, as was their wont, came charging at us in the beginning and scored an early goal through Zahid. The goal surprised us so much that we did not know how to shackle them. Suddenly they slowed down, and we picked up pace.

During the half-time break, we analysed the play in the first-half and realised that we were falling into the trap set by Pakistan instead of playing our own aggressive and skilful game. We decided that we would go all out in the second half, and did exactly that, to unsettle Pakistan.

We were all over the Pakistani territory on resumption, particularly after Surjit Singh had equalised, and did not loosen our hold. Our dream of winning the World Cup was realised when Ashok Kumarís shot off a rebound found the target.

Pakistan were indeed unlucky to lose their crafty left-winger Samiullah early in the match when he fell and broke his collar bone. With his exit, Pakistanís game faced a sudden slump.

But Indiaís victory was not just a fluke. We won the Cup with great planning and preparation. Team building takes time and the 1975 squad matured over a period of several years, after they came together in 1969-70.

Camp to remember

The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), headed by MAM Ramaswamy, gave us much support. The IHF and the Indian Olympic Association requested the Punjab Government to host the training camp for the World Cup.

The Punjab Government, headed by Giani Zail Singh, provided us wonderful training facilities, food and accommodation on the Panjab University campus in Chandigarh. Hordes of university students, both boys and girls, used to turn up to watch our training sessions. This considerably pepped up our spirits.

Balbir Singh Sr was the camp in charge, and Gurcharan Singh Bodhi, the coach. (Later, Balbir Singh and Bodhi were appointed manager and coach, respectively, of the World Cup team).

We were also given the best medical facilities at the PGI, Chandigarh, to ensure that the 30-odd campers stayed fit and injury-free. At the end of the coaching camp, lasting a month and a half, we were all raring to go and do our best in the World Cup.

When the squad of 16 was picked, there were no surprises. The selectors chose the best players available and the main advantage of the team was that the core group of 12-13 had been playing together for the last three years. This made a major difference in the World Cup as we complemented each other so very well on the field that I had never before seen such perfect teamwork in the Indian team.

We had a limited choice as far as bench strength was concerned though it was very sapping to play in the heat of Kuala Lumpur.

Yet, the core group played throughout, without complaining of fatigue or injury. And they were rarely substituted. They too knew that they had no choice, but to perform.

Close shave

We almost did not qualify for the semi-final after losing to Argentina, the weakest team, in a crucial pool match. Though we dominated Argentina and forced a series of chances, we failed to score off any goal, muffing around 20-30 virtual sitters. Our only hope of reaching the last-four stage now depended on beating Germany by a margin of three goals. It looked like an impossible task, but we pulled it off, thanks to our determination and the blessings of God, and inflicted a 4-1 defeat on Germany.

We managed to beat the best three teams in the six-team pool ó the other wins coming against Holland and Australia ó which considerably boosted our confidence and morale, and we entered the semifinal.

Testing turf

With the introduction of Astro-turf, the domination of India and Pakistan in the world arena has waned. India could have had another shot at the World Cup title when it was played in Argentina in 1978 ó the last time the event was played on grass.

However, dissensions in the team, and the exit of Surjit, Virender and Baldev from the coaching camp, broke the back of the set team. I was persuaded to go with the team by the then Union Minister Sikander Bakht, but I said I would go only if Surjit and the others were included.

But the minister said they were dropped on disciplinary grounds and would not be taken back. And I stuck to my decision not to be part of the 1978 World Cup squad.

ó As told to M. S. Unnikrishnan